Archive for August, 2006

I don’t want to be rich and famous.

Does that sound disingenuous? It isn’t.

As far as money goes, I want to have enough for my family to live in relative safety and comfort. Thankfully, I do. There have been times in my life when I’ve had more money than I needed, and it made me almost as nervous as having too little. Mind you, if some extra money comes my way, I don’t complain, but the idea of having tons of it doesn’t attract me.

And fame? Why would anyone want to be famous? What is the appeal of being known by people you’ve never met? Sounds more like a neurosis than a healthy aspiration. I read a newspaper article about a friend of mine recently, a conductor, who was giving a talk at a luncheon. The guy who wrote the article made note of the fact that my friend snuck a piece of someone else’s cake toward the end of the meal. What kind of nut wants or needs that kind of scrutiny?

Where does the pursuit of dough and notoriety lead? Call me goal-driven, but I like to know what end I’m pursuing. Take fame: how many anonymous people do you think it takes to make you famous? Last I checked, there is no piece of music that is universally loved by everyone on the planet, so relative fame presumably would be measured by percentages. Tell me when you figure out what percentage would make you say, “Ah, now I’m famous.” Do you want a million listeners? Well, that’s less than 2% of the world population – pretty paltry pickings.

Do you want Mona Lisa/Michael Jackson numbers? Don’t you get the sense that the larger the number of anonymous consumers, the less focused the impact? How many of those people who are familiar with the image of Mona Lisa have really had what anyone would recognize as an artistic experience with the actual painting?

(And here’s where I can insert a request: if anyone knows where I read this quote recently, please fill me in – I’ve been reading so voraciously lately, I’ve lost track of sources. It was a hilarious updating of the old Andy Warhol quote: something to the effect of “in the age of the internet, everyone is famous to fifteen people.”)

I’m very clear about what I want from my composing, and fame and fortune don’t figure into the picture. For me, the act of composing is an intensely satisfying investment in the well-being of the species. As a member of the species, my own well-being is taken into account, but not in undue proportion. The real point is to make new things, hopefully beautiful and durable new things, as a counterpoise to all of the destruction homo sapiens wreaks upon itself and its environs. The more harm done by humanity, the more driven I am to produce my little corner of consolation.

And every time I make a small dent in favor of beauty, I have a more substantive sense of value than I could ever get from mass worship or multi-digit bank transactions.

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It’s convenient, and often accurate, to think of musical textures as comprised of foreground, middleground and background. Composers may vary in how they define these textural layers, but they tend to think of layers in one sense or another.

I often think of melodic shape, articulation and color as foreground. Background is harmonic structure and pacing. Everything else is middleground.

When I’m thinking this way, I will usually compose the background first – establish the pacing – and the foreground next. Once I’ve got those in place, I’ll pull together appropriate inner voices, rhythms, etc. – middleground.

Why compose the background first? Because formal pacing is a difficult thing to adjust once you have composed a lot of the surface detail. It’s easier to change your articulations or surface shapes to suit the undercurrents you’ve established than vice versa.

But when I compose the background first, I don’t just come up with some rationally defensible mechanism or structure that will dictate the musical flow. I actually listen to the music in my head as though through the wrong end of a telescope – letting all the details go by in a blur while focusing on the larger shapes of the music.

I first started this approach almost 25 years ago, after taking a wonderful conducting class with Roger Nierenberg. Roger suggested we study the Beethoven symphonies by listening to LPs at 78 RPM, rather than the usual 33. For those of you who have never used a record player, that meant that the music zipped by at more than twice the speed, and distorted the treble pitches into the stratosphere. In other words, the foreground of the music was unintelligible. What you could hear with complete clarity, though, was the background – the form, the phrasing, the harmonic rhythm – and the dramatic pacing.

That experience has had a huge influence on my relationship to form and consequently on my approach to composing. I heard how well-balanced Beethoven’s forms were – not balanced in a rationalized, equational way, but in a way that was always organic and compelling.

Of course, as I noted before, there are many ways to think of foreground, middleground and background. Sometimes I think of it as what the music says, what it does, and what it is thinking. But that’s a topic to tackle in another post.

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I’ve always promised myself I would never write a woodwind quintet. I’ve just never liked how the four-woodwinds-plus-horn combo sounds. And there are so many dreadful pieces written for that combination, I didn’t want to add to the pile of dreck.

But deciding what I am going to do is one thing. Life is another.

I just completed a six-minute woodwind quintet called Child’s play, and I’m astonished at how well it works. For an instrumental grouping that previously never appealed to me, it’s amazing how comfortably it has adapted itself to my language.

What’s next? I’m going to have to take another look at that list of things I’ve promised myself I would never do.

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